The Pagosa Springs Community Recreation Center proposal will continue to move forward, despite a protest from Archuleta County, as town council plans to discuss an ordinance designed to put the issue before town voters in April.
On the agenda for today’s meeting is Ordinance 804, “An ordinance of the Town of Pagosa Springs submitting to the registered electors voting in the regular municipal election to be held April 8, 2014, a ballot issue concerning the imposition of a town-wide sales tax imposed on the sale of tangible personal property at retail and the furnishing of services to be deposited into a town recreation center fund and used solely for the purpose of constructing, improving, equipping, operating and maintaining a community recreation center and providing for the repayment of revenue bonds issued for such purposes; to provide for the submission of this ordinance for approval at the general municipal election; and to amend the Pagosa Springs Municipal Code.”
The council will consider this ordinance even though Archuleta County Attorney Todd Starr sent a letter dated Jan. 7 to town manager David Mitchem expressing opposition to the increased sales tax.
“I am writing to express Archuleta County’s desire that the Town of Pagosa Springs not usurp the remaining available sales tax,” Starr’s letter stated. “We believe that both the Town and the County benefit from the history of sharing the sales tax. We believe that the sharing arrangement that currently exists helps foster a relationship of cooperation.”
In an article in last week’s SUN, Mitchem expressed a similar sentiment, “We have a strong cooperative relationship between the town and the county. We’re in partnership on many projects. The county was an active participant with us on the development of Yamaguchi Park, for example. So this partnership between the town and the county to advance the effective utilization of geothermal resources is very, very important to this community.”
The town and county recently entered into an agreement with Pagosa Verde, a private local company, to develop a geothermal electric utility.
“Affirmatively,” Starr’s letter continued, “We would like the Town to consider placing a joint issue on the ballot that would raise the sales tax and dedicate the additional revenue to Roads within the County and curb and gutters and sidewalks within the town.”
However, Section 5 of Ordinance 804, entitled “Use of Revenues,” clearly states, “Unless further restricted by the Town Council, the revenues derived from the Recreation Center Sales Tax shall be deposited into a Town recreation center fund and used solely for the purpose of constructing, improving equipping operating and maintaining a community recreation center, to include but not be limited to a multipurpose gymnasium, an aquatics center, a fitness and training center, and other associated recreation facilities amenities and expansions, and providing for the payment of revenue bonds issued for such purposes.”
The ordinance goes on to spell out that the 1 percent Recreation Center Sales Tax, if approved by the town’s voters, will go into effect July 1, 2014, and will remain until June 30, 2039, unless the construction bond is repaid sooner.
“Finally,” Starr’s letter concluded, “be advised that should the Town of Pagosa Springs recognize an increase in sales tax Archuleta County is hereby asserting its right to fifty (50%) of any such revenue generated.”
In an interview with SUN staff last week, Mitchem explained, “We received a letter from the county, and are taking that letter under advisement. The county raises a good point. The appeal of the letter is that, historically, the town and county have shared sales tax resources.
“Now, the town is considering a different vehicle for the rec center. The county is appreciative of the sharing arrangement we’ve had in the past and their appeal is for that kind of arrangement to continue in the future.”
As a result of Starr’s letter, the town council conducted a special meeting on Jan. 17 where they immediately went into an executive session to consult with town attorney Bob Cole. Starr was present for part of the executive session, but was then asked to leave about 25 minutes into it.
“Suffice it to say,” Mitchem affirmed during a Tuesday interview with SUN staff, “the matter remains on the agenda (for today’s town council meeting) and they will be doing a review of ballot language. I can’t say more than that because it was an executive session and I have to honor the attorney/client privilege.”
Parks and Recreation Director Tom Carosello also confirmed Cole’s positive legal opinion in a Tuesday morning interview, “The informal response that we’re getting from the town attorney is that the county does not have a legal claim to a half cent should the town pass a rec center ballot initiative. At some point we will get a written explanation from our attorney. However, this Thursday (today) the first draft of the ballot language will be presented to council.”
Later the same day, county commissioner Michael Whiting stopped by The SUN office where he made the following statement:
“That letter was a declaration of our position as a county on sales tax. Normally, a declaration of our position on taxation would require a public meeting and a vote that all three commissioners would have an opportunity to participate in.
“Todd was instructed to write that letter in my absence, while I was in D.C. working on PILT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) and other things for the county. I had no part in that letter — none — and I’m not aware of a public meeting where Todd was instructed to write that letter.”
Whiting reiterated that the decision to write a letter to the town was not made during a public meeting, implying that his fellow commissioners violated open meetings laws. According to Colorado’s Sunshine Laws, all decisions by public officials are required to be made openly.
“I have concerns about sales taxation of county residents without their input,” Whiting concluded, “but the letter contains things added by the other commissioners that are not true.
“I’ll give you an example. The last sentence in the letter says we will assert our right to fifty percent of the sales tax. That is factually incorrect. We don’t have a right to any future sales tax. The town has no obligation to share any tax that they levy, period.
“That fact was known by all parties when the letter was drafted, so that was an empty threat. I would argue that there would have been a far more diplomatic way to handle this, but that’s just me,” Whiting concluded.